Film: Lucky Leading Boys

Hartnett and Brown find themselves in good company

Weinstein Co

How lucky can one Hollywood boy toy be? For instance, take Josh Hartnett, the latest dark-haired model to step off the dream factory line for his close-up.

He got his auspicious heartthrob-in-training start on TV in the short-lived adaptation of the British crime drama Cracker but steadily gained "It" boy status after a string of appearances in serious teen fare like The Virgin Suicides and O. He then crossed over into more mainstream projects like Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down and has continued to strike a balanced pose between Hollywood (Hollywood Homicide) and relative outsider assignments (Sin City).

Money has been made and teen magazines bearing Hartnett's likeness have surely flown off the racks, but there's no conclusive proof that he's ready for more adult roles. His boyish profile and somewhat stiff presence place him alongside Paul Walker (Running Scared), another pretty mannequin who wants to rough up his smooth features. Now Hartnett reteams with Paul McGuigan (after a previous pairing in Wicker Park) for Lucky Number Slevin, which finds him in a new, shadier light. But I wonder if this is the right way to maintain his perceived hold over the ladies.

Slevin (Hartnett) is a victim of a dangerous case of mistaken identity that lands him in the middle of a turf war between The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman), a couple of underworld warlords who reside in downtown high rises directly across from one another. Each feels the other is plotting a massive, and likely bloody, takeover and decides to use Slevin as a pawn to advance their interests in the war.

The cast also includes a crooked cop, Brikowski (Stanley Tucci); a twisted assassin, Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis thankfully not playing old this time around after Sin City and 16 Blocks); and a motor-mouth love interest, Lindsey (Lucy Liu).

First-timer Jason Smilovic's screenplay is a fractured mess, typical for the Pulp Fiction-by-way-of-The Usual Suspects mold that's become a genre unto itself, but don't take that as an outright indictment of the proceedings. Twisty pretzel logic in such manic arguments often distracts audiences from focusing on the fact that there is no real point to be made here.

Slevin is guilty of this crime, which leaves McGuigan with nothing to prove, but he nonetheless presents his case with neo-noir conviction.

Which takes us back to Hartnett and whether or not he survives this gamble. It would be fair to assume he might be out of his league among this veteran cast of Oscar winners (Kingsley and Freeman), fast-talking tough guys (Tucci and Willis) and even the high-profile Liu. For the most part, Hartnett wears a towel and his trademark blank expression like a suit of shining armor warding off the broad swipes of his battle-worn co-stars.

Slevin won't be the one to make or break him. Better luck next time, and there definitely will be another chance — a huge opportunity to fill the shoes of Chet Baker in the biopic The Prince of Cool.

If only fortune smiled equally on everyone, then Rob Brown might have been lucky enough to land a number like Slevin or some suitably jazzy tune. He basked in the pearly whites of lady luck in Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester — which was little more than Good Will Hunting in the 'hood — playing opposite his own Oscar-winning mentor (Sean Connery). Then Brown earned a tutorial session with Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter.

Now Brown finds himself dancing alongside Antonio Banderas in music video helmer Liz Friedlander's feature film debut, Take the Lead. As a misunderstood kid named Rock, Brown gets to be sullen once again — his "money" expression — as he gets taken under the wing of yet another do-good adult who sees something locked deep within him. Only in the 'hood is such patronage so damned patronizing.

Even though it's based on or inspired by a true story, Lead follows a well-worn path. Ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine (Banderas) happens upon a troubling scene with Rock smashing up his principal's car in a fit of rage; he then inserts himself into the lives of Rock and central casting's rainbow-flavored version of a ghetto school's regular detention detainees.

Everyone knows the routine from here. The kids learn the discipline of dance, and ballroom gets a new Hip Hop heartbeat. Friedlander has given visual form to the music of R.E.M., 3 Doors Down and Blink 182 to name a few, but her jump-cutting during the dance sequences never approximates a sense of grace or rhythm.

Brown got a break with Forrester, but he desperately needs another one now because, at 22, he's getting too old to play a high school kid with stereotypical hoop dreams. His youthful face sits atop a true grown man's body, the kind of physique that would have landed Hartnett in the Vin Diesel action franchise league — yet somehow, in this case, it can't get Brown out of these school plays.

We could call that something else, but let's leave it at "unlucky." Lucky Number Slevin grade: C; Take the Lead grade: D

Out of his depth?: Lucy Lui and Josh Hartnett in Lucky Number Slevin.